New York

Eric Bogosian

The Public Theater

For the last several years Eric Bogosian has presented two solo performances, Men Inside and Voices of America, in casual performance spaces like Inroads, P.S. 122, Club 57, and Franklin Furnace. Throughout July he performed the two as a twin bill every Thursday in the more formally theatrical space of the Public Theater’s Martinson Hall, and, as with most nontraditional performance, the import of his work shifted along with its context. These partly improvised, constantly re-ordered collections of short “bits” appeared more polished and sometimes more provocative than the downtown—Saturday Night Live revue sketches they had resembled, but they also weighed in as not-too-substantial theater, with their string-of-beads form and uncommitted point of view. Bogosian’s characters, like those of the media-conscious, image-mongering Hallwalls group (with some of whom Bogosian has worked), are smartly selected and executed with finesse; finally, however, his case studies don’t tell you much beyond what they show, and this emotional opacity (or muteness) dulls the many points made by his accomplished portrayals of stock figures and cliché situations.

Men Inside is a collection of some dozen-plus male roles sketched out by Bogosian as if the skits were commercials for the characters and scenes. Dressed throughout in street clothes and using virtually no props except for an occasional recorded-music number, Bogosian races through his portrait gallery like a sidewalk cartoonist; no “bit” is much longer than five minutes, and most last for only two or three. The range of characters is deliberately eclectic: carny barker, lounge-lizard host, male stripper, Brooklyn street punk, wino, redneck, Italian father, preacher. Bogosian is adept at mimicking the surface physical and vocal qualities of each figure, and the speeches he writes are monologue verité— perfect in their accents, rhythm, and vocabulary. What’s missing is the emotional subtext, the stance of Bogosian the performer vis-à-vis Bogosian the character of the moment, which would make what are really basic acting-class exercises into a true show and tell about male identities. As is, Men Inside has no overall formal scheme, nor does it exhibit a psychological stance, so its spiels remain only simulacra of both the original models the performance impressively duplicates and the masculine truths it attempts to expose.

Voices of America is a more limited display of Bogosian’s skilled mimicry, but because it’s a parody of already self-parodying forms—radio and TV forms—it’s more purely fun and less worrying in its affectless surfaces than Men Inside. Again Bogosian sets up some stock targets: lots of commercials (Crazy Eddie, TV record offers, Join-the-Army ads) with swipes along the way at cheerful disaster newscasters, ranting evangelists, Rod Serling, and new-wave disc jockeys. These takes are relentlessly funny, but they’re supposed to be—does anyone outside of an ad agency seriously think about a commercial? Here surface is all, and Bogosian’s vocal changes, his rapid-fire delivery and breakneck pacing, and the sheer aware energy with which he throws himself into the media mélange create hilarious audio-portraits which are as good as TV comedy gets, and that’s good.

John Howell